News & Commentary

February 28, 2016

Governor Scott Walker’s push to cut collective bargaining rights for public sector workers not only has slashed union membership numbers, but also has diminished Wisconsin unions’ political role.  This decrease in unions’ political influence, in turn, will disproportionately hurt Democrats, the traditional “beneficiaries of money and ground-level help from the unions,” according to the New York Times.  With “declining membership, resources and money,” labor’s presence this election year amounts to “a stool with a missing leg,” in the words of one Democratic strategist.  Antiunion legislation in other Midwest states, including Indiana and Michigan, may also hurt labor’s political strength and impact national and state election outcomes.

Yet it may be premature to mourn the loss of labor’s political influence.  Politico reports that in many tight Democratic races across the nation, labor seeks to oust incumbents that showed support for President Obama’s free-trade agenda by voting for “fast-track” trade promotion legislation.  Labor’s “reprisal” could prove decisive in the reelection campaigns of California Reps. Scott Peters and Ami Bera and New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, among others.  The White House has swooped in to “rescue those on labor’s hit list”: The Obama administration has “given targeted lawmakers early endorsements, raised campaign funds and deployed Cabinet officials to praise members in their districts.”

Zenefits, a health-benefits-brokerage company, will lay off 250 employees, or seventeen percent of its workforce, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The chief executive of the closely held corporation, which has been hailed as “one of Silicon Valley’s most promising startups,” acknowledged that the company “grew too fast, stretching both [its] culture and [its] controls.”  Zenefits will abandon efforts to sell insurance policies to corporate customers, focusing its sales efforts on small businesses.

Chicago State University, a historically black public university, has also sent potential layoff notices to all faculty, staff, and administrators, reported the Washington Post.  The school, which traditionally receives a third of its funding from state appropriations, has not received such funding in eight months, with the Republican Governor and Democratic-controlled General Assembly failing to agree on a budget.  The governor has conditioned the passage of the $36 billion budget to changes in collective bargaining rights for public employees and workers compensation—terms that Democratic legislators have not yet accepted.  Meanwhile, the university has taken drastic measures to stay open during the budget impasse.  For example, earlier last week, the school cancelled spring break and moved up the end of the semester to cut operating costs.

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